Denny Mogan’s younger brother Brad shares stories from their youth, his emotions learning of Denny’s ALS diagnosis and why he’d trade places with him if he could
Interview by Jonathan Westman
Photography by Grant L. Gursky
JW: What was it like growing up with Denny? Who’s older, and have you always been close?
Do you have other siblings?
BM: Denny is my older brother. My sister, Carrie, Denny and I are all two years apart, almost exactly.
Denny and I were very close. We shared a room for many years (we had side-by-side beds, trundle beds and even at one point stacked bunk beds and I slept on the top bunk. We had similar interests and played Star Wars and G.I. Joe. Had a lot of the same friend groups. Of course, brothers, much like bear cubs, are always going to test each other when they get to a certain age, and Denny has always been taller and stronger than me, which I have only learned to admit recently, even though it was very obvious.
What did your mom and dad do for work, and were you/are you a close family?
My mother was a stay-at-home mom who volunteered and taught at our nursery school until we moved to Salisbury. We moved from Pittsburgh to be closer to my mother’s family, who had two terminally ill parents. Her father was dying of cancer and her mother had a different form of ALS — go figure — not genetically related, just really bad luck.
What are some of your fondest memories growing up together with Denny?
There are so many great ones, but a couple that stick out in my mind our from our family videos my dad made on our giant VHS camera recorder. One Christmas morning, my parents had purchased some gifts for all the kids, and my younger sister and I could’ve cared less about the Disney movies they had gifted us. My brother, being perceptive even at a young age, sensed my parent’s disappointment with our reaction to the gift, so he overreacted with a very enthusiastic “SLEEPING BEAUTY!! THANK YOU!!” Coming from a kid who was into GI Joe and Stars Wars, we watched the video years later and all laughed with my mom, who was defending him by saying how sweet, kind and thoughtful he was as a child.
That same care for others has always been a theme in his life, and I believe the reason he got into the hospitality industry was because he was so good at reading people and taking care of their needs. He will be super embarrassed by this, but he has been picking on me since I was young, and its time for payback!
What are three characteristics of Denny that define him as a person?
Sense of humor: It has always been a characteristic that people mention. Humor and intelligence seem to go hand-in-hand with Denny. People always talk about his smile, too.
When did you come back from Charleston to manage Mogan’s?
I returned the beginning of May. Left my bags in the car for a couple days, so Denny could go home and rest and be with his family.
Mogan’s won five categories, including Best New Restaurant, in the Best Of 2020, as voted by the readers of our magazine. How do those distinctions make you feel?
So proud and grateful. Proud of my brother for believing in this and taking this risk, proud of
David Wells for cooking such amazing food, and proud and grateful to the amazing team in this restaurant. Great people all of them. This was very validating for my brother and his family to see what a great job this whole team had done. Perfect timing.
Where were you when you received word of Denny’s diagnosis? Please share some of the emotions you felt that day.
Denny and David Wells had come down to Charleston to do some research and development about three weeks before opening. They were busting their humps to get the place open and took a 48-hour trip to come and stay with me and eat, eat, eat. They ate at something like
11 places in two days to get some fun ideas on some well-established staples and some new oyster bars.
While down there, I noticed Denny’s feet were swollen. I thought it could be stress or travel or eating an insane amount of food over 48 hours, but something was wrong — so much that I remember Denny saying, “Don’t tell Mom.” This was a phrase that had been uttered between us on more than one occasion, growing up. We do so only in an effort to spare the greatest woman
in our world any worry until we knew there was something to worry about.
In addition to all the great things he is, Denny is also stubborn. So I said, “I won’t tell Mom if you go to a doctor.” He did, and that started the tests and panels. To diagnose ALS, you have to strip away literally every other disease possible. I had been back and forth, from Charleston to Salisbury, to help with restaurant opening, as I had a restaurant in Charleston with some partners.
I spoke to Denny nearly every day, and we noticed his speech was slurred. Most people assumed he was stressed out and maybe was coping with alcohol, but that wasn’t the case. A good friend of mine called me after a couple of inquiries had come my way. He didn’t pull any punches. Lee said, “Something is wrong, and you need to come home.” I finished service, packed my things up and drove overnight to Salisbury.
The diagnosis is my mother’s worst fear, because she couldn’t imagine this happening again after supporting her mother for years while she battled this awful disease. There was some evidence that suggested it wasn’t ALS — and that was a good day. We had some evidence that it was maybe a strange blood infection from the liver. We even all prayed that it was a rare abdominal form of cancer that acted like Bulbar Onset ALS. You know it’s a bad disease when you are praying for rare abdominal cancer. When the final diagnosis actually happened, we were all pretty sure that this was going to be the case — and whether we verbalized it to each other, I don’t remember. I just remember thinking all I want to do is trade places with him. The emotions of guilt are strange, but that’s how much my family loves each other — we would all gladly trade places with each other no matter what. He has this great family and this budding business that was really taking off, and I am not married and have no children. It seems very unfair. He is the best of us, and it makes no sense. Why him?
As months have passed, how have your emotions changed, and what fuels you the most?
I have a picture of Denny on my computer screens in the office. My screensaver is two screens of Denny looking at me. Sometimes it brings me peace to see him; other times, I think about why I am here, to take care of this business and the people who work here, to take care of the business to take this dream of his all the way, but mostly to make sure this restaurant serves as an asset to his family — to keep it going until we can get back to as close to normal as we can.
I look at that picture on the long days — like the really long 18-19-hour days that come up from time to time. There is always so much to be doing in this business, between the restaurant, training, scheduling, cost control, payroll, HR, accounting services and planning the million dreams you have that you would like to work on. On those days, I can hear him encouraging me, and that serves as my motivation. Denny is my hero.
What do you think the legacy of Denny Mogan will be?
Denny’s legacy will live on in his children, wife, friends and family. His friends will influence his children, by passing the best of their skills on to his kids and telling stories about their dad.
His legacy also lives in the staff members who returned to work without asking a question about how they would be paid while we were just open for takeout. These people just asked how they can help. Denny once said to me that people move on and people forget, and I was mad at him for saying that because I saw some truth in it — and that made me even more mad. But if there is one thing that I have learned going through this process, it’s that Denny was wrong at least once is his life. People will never forget this dude! He has touched and influenced too many people’s lives. For the record, he has been wrong a lot more than once in this life, but in this little brother’s opinion — it never seemed like it.